WASHINGTON – Republican Rep. Tom Emmer and Democratic Sen. Amy Klobuchar will be joining President Obama on his historic trip to Cuba next weekend.
The two Minnesota members of Congress will be part of a larger group of Republicans and Democrats traveling on the two-day trip as the president tries to restore ties with Cuba after more than 50 years of Cold War tensions. It will be the first time a sitting U.S. president has traveled to the communist island off the coast of Florida in 88 years.
Emmer and Klobuchar were invited together as part of an aggressive push on Capitol Hill to get Congress to lift the Cuban trade embargo.
Emmer is working to win support from House Republicans for his proposal to end the Cuban embargo. Klobuchar has teamed up with a group of Republicans and Democrats on a similar measure in the Senate. Both politicians hope to bring their versions up for a vote before the end of this Congress in December.
Emmer said he received the invite to fly with the president and to attend his speech in Havana, but has few other details about what they will do during the trip March 21 and 22. He said the White House told them they will also attend a baseball game.
Asked whether Obama’s trip to Cuba will help or hurt his effort to recruit Republicans to support the measure, Emmer said, “It can’t hurt.”
“This is the first United States president to visit Cuba since the prohibition,” Emmer said. “I’m sure there will be some on my side of the aisle that will look at this as a partisan thing, but it’s not. This is nonpartisan. This is something the president does.”
Klobuchar called the trip something she didn’t want to miss.
“The historic nature of it, you can’t miss it, it’s pretty important,” she said. “We think this will be a plus to Minnesota in the long run. … I think it will be a jump-start for the legislation.”
The idea to lift the trade ban with Cuba isn’t new among some Democrats on the Hill, but it has received renewed attention and momentum in light of Obama’s decision 15 months ago to boost diplomacy with the country and relax some of the many rules surrounding travel and financial transactions.
Obama’s work on opening up relationships with Cuba — including a U.S. embassy in Havana, which opened last August — was years in the works with the help of the Canadian government, Pope Francis and the Vatican, White House officials said.
Obama has said increased engagement is the best way to improve the lives of the Cuban people and open up business opportunities for American companies and agriculture. But the president’s efforts can only go so far; it is ultimately up to Congress to lift the trade embargo by a vote.
Emmer and Klobuchar became active on the issue for different reasons.
Emmer, who was first elected to Congress less than two years ago, said a trip to the island with fellow lawmakers where he spoke with Cubans and small business owners inspired him to take up the cause. He said the embargo was hurting regular people there who wanted to get ahead.
Klobuchar said the chance for open trade with Cuba opens up massive opportunities for Minnesota businesses and agribusinesses. She says if a trade embargo isn’t lifted, the Cuban economy and its burgeoning tourism industry will continue to flourish, benefiting Asian and European companies.
“We’re starting to see all these investments by all these foreign hotels,” she said. “We’d like it to be American hotels because that means American jobs.”
White House officials say that while in Havana, Obama will meet with President Raul Castro and with those from the Cuban civil society.
Officials say Obama has already raised free speech and free assembly concerns with Castro in previous conversations and will continue to do so.